Behind the Scenes of FORBIDDEN KINGDOM
by Gene Ching
April 18th, 2008 saw the debut of the much-anticipated Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Yuen Woo Ping collaboration, FORBIDDEN KINGDOM. The film captured both the American and Chinese box office for its premiere weekend, breaking the record for the highest-grossing opening day ever in China. Kung Fu Tai Chi magazine was pleased to run an exclusive cover story by the film's screenwriter, John Fusco. What's more, our martial media columnist, Dr. Craig Reid, offered his review the week of the premiere. As an extra bonus, here are some exclusive interviews with Fusco, director Rob Minkoff and two of the film's stars, Collin Chou and Crystal Liu.
L-R; Director Rob Minkoff, Gene Ching & screenwriter/martial artist John Fusco
John Fusco: Bedtime Story to Big Screen
FORBIDDEN KINGDOM's youthful hero has been compared to Ralph Macchio's Daniel-san in KARATE KID. Coincidentally, John Fusco's first screenplay, CROSSROADS, starred Macchio in the lead role. Fusco's next project is a re-imagining of the martial arts classic SEVEN SAMURAI.
"When my son turned eleven, he began an interest in martial arts. And I was excited about that because of my own background. I wanted to introduce him to the classical literature and philosophy and religion that form kung fu. So at night, I started reading JOURNEY TO THE WEST. He was fascinated by Monkey King but it was a little hardcore for him at that age. So I thought 'I'm going to make up a bedtime story with a character that he can live through and see this story through?a time travel adventure back to the mythic China of legend and lore into this jianghu world.' I started making up the story in serial fashion each night, continued the next night. And it grew and it grew and it was getting very interesting for him. Then when I was off on the set of HIDALGO, I had to go away from home and the producer (Casey Silver) asked me what I was working on these days. I said 'To be honest with you, I'm working on this bedtime story for my son set in the world of martial arts. I better come up with an ending before I get home.' So as I told him about it, he really lit up and said 'We should do this as our next movie together.' So when I headed home, it was with the assignment to turn it into a script.
"In the original draft, Jet's character is the Tang monk who is travelling with him (the Money King), but he is re-imagined as a Shaolin monk. And Jet Li responded to the material right away. For one reason, the Monkey King is a childhood hero and he longed to play the Monkey King. But he felt that the Tang monk could not do martial arts. And yet he loved the idea of this character being a martial artist and so he said, 'You need to re-imagine him so he's not the character from JOURNEY TO THE WEST. We should tie into the Monkey King's 72 transformations.' And so Jet and I started working on the idea about this character being one of Monkey King's transformations sent to free himself.
"In one draft, Jason was a Chinese American. Jet and Jackie read that draft and said, 'Why'd you do that? The western kid was obsessed with this and that was you. That was your son. That's a lot of these kids and they see it through his eyes.' As I write about it in Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine, Jason's journey really parallels that idea that his heroes are actually the guys making this film. Jason's martial arts heroes become his masters.
"Throughout it was so exciting, working with Yuen Woo Ping, Peter Pau and Rob (Minkoff) and every day, making these discoveries. Jet was always focusing on the internal and his character's journey and Monkey King. In other drafts, Monkey King was more man-monkey and I wanted him to express the Monkey King character through Monkey King kung fu. Although Jet loved the idea that we were taking Monkey King outside of the box and not doing chapter and verse because we had no interest in that, he also felt we needed to be faithful to the Monkey King character. And Woo Ping felt the same way. So it was this meeting of the minds and the script was constantly growing and changing throughout this production.
"There was always unexpected humor that Woo Ping would bring out of the choreography. Where I wrote a scene on the page, (it) did not have that kind of humor. He would go into the training center and put it together and bring us in and suddenly we were looking at HALF A LOAF OF KUNG FU. It was like kung fu vaudeville. And then he'd say 'Is this going to work in the context? In the structure?' And it always did. It was mercurial.
"My son thought it was awesome. He came to the set in China and that was one of the most exciting moments for me. That's when it really came full circle. It started for him when he was 11 years old and here's this 14-year-old kid on the set now and very committed to martial arts study. That felt like, 'Yes, ok, maybe this story worked.' It connected him. He was there watching Jet do the Monkey King, hanging out with Jackie and watching Woo Ping. He was very excited to see that come full circle. We screened the film on Monday night. He got to see it. The next night was his next wushu class. And he wanted to go early. And that just meant everything to me?that he saw the film and was so inspired. That was really the crowning moment for this whole thing for me."
Collin Chou: Veteran Villain
Collin Chou has been working in kung fu films for two decades. In Hollywood, most credit him with MATRIX and D.O.A., but any kung fu film fan knows him for his recent work in FEARLESS and FLASH POINT. When asked how he relaxes, Chou quips without blinking, "I have my concubines," and then laughs, leaving interviewers to wonder if he's really shaken off his role as the villainous Jade Warlord. His next project is NINJA ASSASSIN, produced by the Wachowski brothers.
"Let me make clear here?this is not a villain role. He is a great ruler. He just tries to protect the kingdom. When I was developing my character I imagined Jade Warlord has been trained since he was a little boy?trained to protect the kingdom?not allow anyone to disrespect or break the rules. Unfortunately those unruly characters, played by J and J, they go against me. So it's a different view point. Think it through. If you are an actor, and you got offered this character, and you think, 'Oh, this is a villain' and you just play a villain, that's very surface, you know? You got to think it through. THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA. Meryl Streep. Would you say Meryl Streep is the evil woman? No. She is trying to protect her career, right? That's just her character. It's not evil. And for FLASH POINT? He's not evil. He's just, you know, doing his thing. And then he's very in touch with his mother.
"I did FLASH POINT because Donnie (Yen) is my good friend. We played in a movie together more than ten years ago. So first he called me and says 'Here's a new movie and would you call me back on this project?' I say 'Ok, let's go.' The whole movie we shot for five months. So after that, I was almost going to another movie, but there's a casting and the casting director introduced me to the director and the director introduced me to Casey Silver. And then, both of them, the first time they see me, they want me. I said 'Sorry, I promised another movie'. So they went to negotiate with the other movie and finally they got the producer to agree. So I got the job.
"After years, going back to Hong Kong to do FLASH POINT was a great challenge because you're using strength and your physicality?then after having done that, a month or two months later, I'm doing this movie. This movie really challenged me, how to compete with the two J's. How can your character let the audience believe these two guys are going to challenge you? That's most important.
"Donnie Yen is more kung fu style. He's trying to make it more realistic. Yuen Woo Ping?it all depends on what kind of movie he is making. He accepts a lot of movies?new generation ideas?having combined his several years of experience to repackage and use his lenses to convey action. That's why a lot of new directors want to work with Yuen Woo Ping?because he's willing to do something that's young generation?new ideas. I always prepare myself for Yuen Woo Ping's movie. I know Yuen Woo Ping is going to give me something difficult for me to do it. So I just prepare myself.
"I like all my martial arts scenes. It all comes from my heart to do it. It comes from everyone's heart to create those action atmospheres. The most important thing is the drama behind the action, not the action?. It's my martial arts background that makes me have that kind of strength. And remember, strength is the only virtue which nature respects.
"FORBIDDEN KINGDOM was a big group of diverse people. The most important part was that everyone was working to do their best to make this movie to convey some of the message that it's not just for kung fu or martial arts things. There's more beyond that. The philosophy tells you that when you're facing life's difficulties, how to handle your life. So you can teach your kids. Bring your kids and family members to watch this movie. And most important is never give up. Never surrender."
Rob Minkoff: From Lion King to Monkey King
Rob Minkoff is best known for his work in family films. With LION KING, STUART LITTLE, and shorts connected to the ROGER RABBIT franchise, Minkoff seems like an unlikely candidate to direct such an anticipated martial match-up as FORBIDDEN KINGDOM. However, as Minkoff reveals, this project resonated with him in many unexpected ways.
"My background is that I love movies and I love martial arts movies. I love Bruce Lee. He's one of my childhood heroes. There's even some martial arts in LION KING?Rafiki?I don't know if you remember?at the very end of the movie. That was just for me. That was from being a fan. Now did I think that I would actually get to make this kind of movie?a martial arts movie? Not at the time. But it wasn't really that part of it that drew me in. It was John's script.
"There were a couple of different things that led to it. I went to China for the first time in 1997. I went to Beijing and saw it in a completely different way than it is now. If you've been to Beijing, or if you've been there that long ago, it's just transformed. So the first time I went, it was an incredible experience. What I find interesting is that Chinese culture has exported itself all over the world. It's the only culture that I know of that creates a Chinatown, or something like that, where it's almost like it's perfectly intact. The culture remains just as it exists so when you walk into a Chinatown, you're like walking into China. So when I walked into China for the first time, it was like 'Oh my God, this is just an enormous Chinatown!' It's just like that?the same shops selling the same goods. It's the same feeling but just in this immense scale. I grew up the in the Bay Area, and I remember going to Chinatown here, when I was little. And that was just fascinating. I love it. So five years ago, I don't know if you've heard this story, but I recently got married. My wife is American-born Chinese. So five years ago, we met. And we were engaged at the time that I got the script. So then I'm reading this script and I'm like, "Oh my God, there's a chance for me to go make a movie in China.' And not only that, the story was great?this American kid who loves martial arts movies. That's me! So I really identified with that and the idea of going to China to make a movie that not only tells a story about a kid who goes to learn from martial arts masters, but as a director, to go direct a movie where I'm going to work these same martial arts masters that made the movies that we loved as kids. It just all got too kind of weirdly cosmic.
"Here's an even more bizarre weird thing. Jason in the movie falls in love with Yifei. Her American name is Crystal. My wife's name is Crystal. Making the movie was like this bizarre?the story of the movie was like the making of the movie. Every character in the movie is reflected in an actor or a performer or someone behind the scenes. Everybody making the movie has his sort of alter ego.
"Think about how amazing it is that you could do a movie about a kid who loves martial arts and then actually get to make the movie with the people who made the movies that this kid loves. If we didn't get Jackie and Jet to do it, or Woo Ping or Peter Pau, you'd watch the movie and be like, 'eh.' But the fact that you got the greatest performers, the greatest artists, working together in a real meeting of East and West?it really was about how do we bring these two worlds together and reflect that so it feels authentic? We didn't want it to seem not genuine. There needed to be a sincerity.
"We actually had to do all of it in China when we moved there to start work on the movie. It was an incredible experience because we didn't have a lot of time in preparation of the movie. Both Jet and Jackie?it's kind of a miracle that they both agreed to be in this film. Even though they've talked about being together for fifteen years, just getting that to happen was so complicated?so many issues, so many difficulties. Between the two of them?both megamovie stars?and the complications of their careers and lives, makes pulling them together an incredible event, in and of itself?just to get them to agree to the movie. Then we had a deadline. They were only available for this window. They could only do this movie during a certain time.
"Then we were affected by the dilemma of having to go to China and figure out the movie?plan the movie, get the budget of the movie so that you can get the movie bonded, because this is an independent film. As surprising as that may seem, it's not a studio. It was made with money that was raised by a company called Relativity and Casey Silver. It's being distributed by Lionsgate, but they're the distributor, not the studio, per se, the creator of the film. So we had a lot of challenges and we came very close to losing Jet and Jackie. The drama of making the movie is almost as big a drama as the movie itself. Because there was a moment there where it looked like it was all going to fall apart. We couldn't get the budget to conform properly to what we needed to get the bond company to agree to bond the movie and we had a week left. It was really so close to falling apart. We had to make financial moves to insure and guarantee that they would be in the movie. Fortunately both Casey and Relativity believed so much in this movie that they were able to convince Jet and Jackie and their people that it really was going to happen. Just putting those two guys in a movie together was really just a miracle.
"I think it would be shocking to anyone to think that getting a chance to make a movie with Jackie Chan and Jet Li would not just be such an obvious thing. Maybe that's just Hollywood. But until it's there, there's just kind of weirdness. You'd think that people would have been just clawing over each other to get this movie.
"Woo Ping absolutely is the personification of the Monkey King. I don't know if you've seen him. The way he works, the way he acts, his physicality, his laughing, he's really like this mirthful, joyful character. Monkey King is a character that is famous in China, as famous as Mickey Mouse, as famous as Bugs Bunny, but not in the west. So what the movie is really doing is presenting this to the world audience. Even though both Jet and Jackie have said 'Who is this really for?' but hopefully this movie is for everybody, representing things authentically and in the right balance. One of my mentors is a the great legendary animation director named Chuck Jones, who created the Road Runner, created Pepe Le Pew, did some of the greatest Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons. When I met him when I was a student at Cal Arts, I remember being so amazed and such a big fan of those characters and those films. And I asked 'Did you guys ever think that these shorts that were done 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago would still be loved by people?' And he goes 'You know what? We never thought about that. We just made it for ourselves. We did it because we liked it. And you know what? If the audience liked it too, that's great. But we really never thought about who the audience was.' That inspired me to try and treat it the same way. You just try to do something you like. If you like it, hopefully other people will like it."
Crystal Liu: Kung Fu Ing?nue
Crystal Yifei Liu started her modeling career at age eight. As a teenager, she's already starred in several Chinese TV series, including the martial arts soap opera based on the popular wuxia novel by Jinyong, RETURN OF CONDOR HEROES. Like her women warrior predecessors, Michelle Yeoh and Cheng Pei Pei, Liu's training was in dance. She also has achieved some success as a recording star on Sony's label.
"I have a dancing background and that's different than the martial arts. But I do have some experience at making martial arts TV series, which are based on novels by Jinyong. That gave me a feeling of how I am going to play a warrior or a woman fighter. I think it did help. Shooting a TV series back in China, it's very hard. Sometimes, we didn't even have time to sleep. Sometimes we had to jump into freezing water during the winter with very little clothes. We had to ride horses all day until we couldn't take it anymore. So I think this all trained me well, and this time, it was very good. There was more time to rest, more time to prepare yourself well before shooting. With Woo Ping, he has a very high standard. He always looks very serious?sometimes scared me?sometimes. But I tried my best to achieve my goals and his goals?. It was very hard. When me and Jackie were doing one scene, we both fainted. The situation was very bad. The nurse came to give us some kind of scary medicine to drink.
"We all know Golden Sparrow is a very tough fighter. She has twin butterfly knives, so it's very hard. I also have an instrument?the pipa?I have to use as my weapon, too. I think that's very interesting. And as I do my own stunts, like hitting by the Jade Warlord?that scene I really have to hit the wall myself. And I enjoyed it. I like the flip I did for my first scene which I kick two soldiers at the same time and did a back flip. I think that was very cool. The final scene with the Jade Warlord was the most important scene. I wanted revenge. She's looking for revenge all her life and this moment is a very big moment in the film. Rob also sees it as a very big moment. The Jade Warlord hit me to the wall and I did that myself. It's very realistic. Actually I do like the emotional scenes better because a person is a person?they have to have emotional things. It can not just be about fighting and I think that's not what we are doing. So I'm glad that the character really has both and it's very balanced?. I like Golden Sparrow very much because I think she has some depth. Not just that she is a fighter, but she has a very sad past. She has a very dramatic ending. She also has other parts in American film, which is very interesting. I want to try different new things.
"I think pretty much from Ang Lee's film (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON) American audiences were interested in Chinese no matter what. Before it's just kung fu, but now it's more opened up to any dramatic. Not just FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, but other stuff. So I think China has the culture that can go to the worldwide audience?. Especially as Chinese or Asian actresses, we have more chances than ever now to play not just a plain fighter or warrior, but with some meaning inside. FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, MUMMY 3, they all have Chinese women lead roles so I'm very excited to see that.
"I think I'm very lucky because I started very young. There are a lot of young actresses. As an actress, I've had a lot of experience?experience of acting?I'm very moved all the time. A lot of good directors and producers gave me the opportunity to play very big role in a very big production. So I think I improved myself very fast and at age nineteen, I got this opportunity to work with Jackie Chan and Jet Li and all these amazing people?the best people?so I think I'm learning things, meanwhile I'm improving myself. Fast and lucky, but I worked very hard because this opportunity, this Golden Sparrow role, I auditioned for half a year. They have very high standards. I did three auditions.
"My birthday was on the day we wrapped. It was very funny. When we woke up, I thought everyone forgot about it because no one said anything. But they were just doing that for surprise. Rob and Peter, finally they bring three huge cakes after the shooting so we celebrated it together?the end of the day and my birthday. Also Michael (Angarano) did a very funny one. When I go home and open my room, there's a cup of flowers because Michael didn't speak Mandarin so he can't go out and buy me a present. He wanted to have some kind of gift because we were working very hard together and became very good friends. So he ended up to pick flowers near the hotel, you know, a garden that belongs to another person, and then he created his own gift. It was very touching and very sweet.
"We did shoot a kissing scene. I think the audience, maybe they expected it. But I respect Rob's choice. It's a different kind of feeling whether they kiss or not. The most important thing is that scene is they finally want to say something to each other. They hide their feelings. Golden Sparrow is not just an orphan. She's also looking for love because she's just the age, you know. So I think it will be more sad to the audience?regret for them?a very sad ending. I think the relationship between Golden Sparrow and Jason is already very clear, especially the scene with both of us at the end of the movie, to let the audience make the story for themselves. I think that's very touching."
L-R; Crystal Yifei Liu, Gene Ching & Collin Chou
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Written by Gene Ching for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM